Four Chaplains Day: Remembering the "Immortal Chaplains" and what it means to be the Chaplain Corps

  • Published
  • By U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Timothy Leddick
  • 911th Airlift Wing

Amidst a dark, chilly night, February 2, 1943, a 368-foot luxury steamship sailed across the North Atlantic Ocean. The steamer was a converted Army troopship, christened The U.S. Army Transport Dorchester, and was bound for the Army Command Base at Narsarsuaq in southern Greenland. Departing from New York amid World War II, the Dorchester spent a week and a half crossing treacherous icy waters, infested with German U-boats. A looming, ominous trepidation swept the crew, as they were ordered to stay vigilant on high alert. Members remained in uniform to sleep; some chose to stay in life preservers.

As the time ticked past midnight, the steamer sailed off Newfoundland on the Labrador Sea. Shortly after, a torpedo impacted the engine room, disabling all electrical power to the vessel. There was no hum of machinery or flicker of lights. Without power, the boiler couldn’t produce enough steam to sound the whistles to abandon ship, and the crew was unable to send a radio distress signal for help.

The Dorchester was left in the dark.

The ship began listing and prevented the launch of some lifeboats, while others capsized due to overcrowding. Panic transpired, chaos ensued; the Dorchester was sinking, and would be submerged within 20 minutes with many of the crew trapped in the lower decks.

Amongst the growing hysteria were four chaplains, who coordinated an orderly evacuation. They directed and guided members to the remaining lifeboats and the other wounded to safety. Through their leadership and resolve they alleviated anxiety amongst the crew, consoling them, calming them and even passing the time with evening variety shows.

“I could hear men crying, pleading, praying and swearing,” said William Bednar, a survivor of the Dorchester. “I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage to the men.”

When the supply of life preservers was exhausted, the chaplains provided their own and continued assisting the disoriented and fear-filled Soldiers to lifeboats until there was no longer any room.

“Just before our ship went down, these chaplains took off their own life preservers and gave them to us,” recalled Daniel O’Keefe, another survivor from the Dorchester. "They were standing on the deck praying hand in hand as our lifeboat drifted out of sight."

As the last of the lifeboats set sail, amidst the flares that lit the currents below the stars, the four chaplains remained upon the sinking ship with the remaining crew, linking arms, saying prayers and singing hymns.

"It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven," said John Ladd, another Dorchester survivor.

More than 900 service men were aboard the Dorchester, and nearly 230 survived the frigid waters following the aftermath. Had it not been for the selfless act of four brave chaplains, many more may have been lost.

Four Chaplains Day honors those men, all of differing practicing religions, who put their lives on the line to save lives as they could while consoling others during their final hours.

1st Lt. George Fox, a Methodist minister, 1st Lt. Alexander Goode, a Reform rabbi, 1st Lt. Clark Poling, a Reformed Church in America minister and 1st Lt. John Washington, a Roman Catholic priest, were those men, all posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart for their sacrifice. The Four Chaplains Medal, also known as the Chaplains Medal of Honor, was a decoration created to commemorate their sacrifice, unanimously approved by Congress in 1960 and posthumously awarded to their respective next of kins.

Today our Air Force has the Chaplain Corps, established in 1949 after transitioning from the Army Air Corps. The Corps consists of a clergy of chaplain commissioned officers and religious affairs enlisted Airmen, previously titled “chaplain assistant.” The Chaplain Corps today remains our spiritual guide for those of both religious and non-religious beliefs, embodying selfless morality as did the Four Chaplains, also known as the “Immortal Chaplains.”

With the English word “chaplain” originating from the French word “chapelains,” Maj. Jeremy Caskey, a 911th Airlift Wing chaplain, attributes the origin of chaplains to Saint Martin of Tours, a 4th century bishop in Gaul (modern day France) who refused the privileged status that came with his position – he is also known as the founder of Christian chaplaincy.

In one story, Martin noticed a beggar freezing in the cold as he was on duty and provided aid by cutting his cloak in two with his sword and providing the cloth to the beggar – a parallel to the Four Chaplains’ last selfless acts.

“The origin of chaplaincy is to take care of the needs of others,” said Caskey. “To put it more poignantly, the Four Chaplains perfectly embody the sacrifice made for those they may not have even known but needed it the most.”

Caskey was prior enlisted as a Combat Cameraman and leaned heavily on chaplain support, subsequently inspiring him to take up the mantle and aid others as a chaplain himself.

“It was then in Iraq and Afghanistan that I needed chaplains more than ever,” said Caskey. “They embodied the sacrifice and living out the values of their faith that was compelling to what it means to be a chaplain.”

Caskey emphasized that the Chaplain Corps aims to assist individuals in rediscovering hope or purpose, especially during challenging times. He cited the Four Chaplains as an example, highlighting their unity across faiths and ranks in the face of adversity.

While the Four Chaplains and their conditions epitomized sacrifice, the Air Force and 911th Chaplain Corps continue to demonstrate the values of selflessness. Maintaining and providing confidential spiritual, emotional and mental guidance is an exhaustive effort chaplains and RA Airmen practice around-the-clock. Many times, the Air Force Chaplain Corps acts as an agency of counseling for those in need, including Airmen on their way out of military service or for those in their darkest moments – instilling value in those who feel valueless.

“I was at a different unit, and we had a mission with our Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron to assist in transporting injured patients,” said Tech. Sgt. Amy Elkins, the 911th AW RA noncommissioned officer in charge. “AES contacted me to provide volunteers to help move those patients from the hospital to aircraft to get them back home.”

Elkins managed to gather four Airmen, all on their way out of service, and briefed them on the mission. She stressed that such a task is not completed within an hour and would be an all-day ordeal but would be very meaningful.

After a taxing day of physical and mental exertion, including patient transportation and constant check-ins with the four Airmen and the patients from morning to night, ensuring their overall well-being, Elkins reflects on the positive impact of engaging those Airmen in a hands-on mission. The experience provided them with a sense of purpose at a time when they were feeling their most stagnant.

“We got them moved, got them going, talked to them, got them breakfast, and ate lunch together,” said Elkins. “At the end of the day an Airman said ‘this was something bigger than me – this day was something meaningful where I’d lost hope. This is something we’ll never forget.’ I always think about that moment. That’s a day I’ll always remember.”

Chaplain Caskey reflects on when he embodied the compassion inherent in the Chaplain Corps. Once serving as a Maintenance Group chaplain for over 1,200 Airmen, he conducted numerous counseling and mental health sessions. Despite receiving calls beyond his regular shift, including from Maintenance Airmen working multiple shifts, Caskey faced burnout but remained resilient for those who relied on him.

“One Airman in particular was going through a divorce at the time,” said Caskey. “He had turned to alcohol. I had been on the phone with this Airman multiple times. There came a point where there was a sudden serenity and peace with him; all of a sudden, he was OK.”

Caskey recounts his unease at the sudden change in demeanor exhibited by the Airman from one day to the next. In conversing with the Airman, Caskey learned he had been to church to see a priest, though he was not religious, and began giving away belongings as well. As communication dwindled, Caskey took the initiative to drive 45 minutes to the Airman's residence.

During the drive, Caskey succeeded in making contact. The Airman sent a GPS location, leading Caskey to a remote location in the woods. Caskey shouted the Airman’s name repeatedly, hoping to find him before the worst could happen. It was then, choosing to turn away from an attempted suicide, Caskey found the Airman emerging from a thicket.

“He stopped what he was doing just from hearing me call his first name,” said Caskey. “This was around the height of COVID-19, but I put my arms around him anyway and hugged him. We started crying and I asked ‘who needs to know that you’re OK right now?’”

Caskey drove the Airman back home as they made calls to family ensuring the Airman’s safety and took him to inpatient care, at his request. Caskey contacted his RAA to retrieve the Airman’s vehicle as well.

“That Airman continued to see me after that incident and even said ‘I can’t believe I almost did that,’” said Caskey. “He’s in a much better place now than he was. When people are at their worst, we can be the beacons of light.”

The significance of the Chaplain Corps and the story of the Four Chaplains emphasizes the importance of their contributions to the armed forces. In times of struggle or in life-and-death situations, a select few stand ready to prioritize the well-being of others, embodying a moral code that the Chaplain Corps lives by.